Dick Lugar set a record as the longest-serving U.S. senator in Indiana history, yet his career can be summed up in a single word: visionary. During 50 years in Indiana politics his chief concern was never the next election but the next generation and the common good.
In the end, his devotion to the right thing instead of the popular thing cost him re-election. It’s also why his departure from the Senate is generating kudos from around the world.
Beginning with his first term in office on the Indianapolis Public Schools board, Lugar was ahead of his time. From 1964-67, he pushed unsuccessfully for voluntary school desegregation. When he ran for board president in 1966, he lost 4-3 and assumed his political career was done. Desegregation came to Indianapolis a few years later by order of a federal court.
As Indianapolis mayor, Lugar guided the controversial merger of city and county into a political entity called Uni-Gov. He managed to quietly convince key decision makers in the business community and Legislature that it was essential for the city’s tax base. Uni-Gov saved the inner city from the effects of suburban flight while other cities crumbled.
In the Senate, Lugar led the campaign for nuclear disarmament, was an early supporter of sustainable energy research and advocated global food security as an effective way to help impoverished countries maintain political stability.
On nuclear disarmament, his efforts were wildly successful. The Nunn-Lugar program has deactivated 7,527 strategic nuclear warheads and destroyed 774 intercontinental ballistic missiles, 498 missile silos and 156 missile launchers, and many other weapons of mass destruction.
At times, his concern for the common good put him in conflict with his party. In the 1980s, Lugar supported economic sanctions against South Africa to help apartheid and free jailed black opposition leader Nelson Mandela. Legislation was vetoed by President Ronald Reagan, who was then overridden by Congress with Lugar leading the charge. Apartheid ended in 1991; Mandela became president three years later.
During the Clinton presidency, he crossed party lines to vote for legislation banning 19 different assault weapons, a ban that expired in 2004 and has not been renewed. In a 1996 television ad aired during his brief presidential campaign, Lugar explained, “I believe in the Second Amendment and our right as Americans to own a gun for self-protection, to hunt and to collect, but there is no right to sweep a playground with an assault weapon.”
The ad was cited by the Tea Party in the May primary as evidence of Lugar’s liberalism. In light of the events at Newtown, Conn., last week, Lugar seems eerily prescient.
Although there are countless examples of Lugar’s foresight, his appreciation for “good governance” – which he both practiced and preached – is of special relevance with the fiscal cliff looming.
In his valedictory speech from the Senate floor last week, Lugar discussed the role of the Senate in our system of checks and balances and why senators have a special obligation to pursue good policy over partisan politics. He urged the president to reach out to congressional leaders on critical issues of national security. Every concerned citizen should read the speech.
“We do our country a disservice if we mistake the act of taking positions for governance. They are not the same thing,” Lugar said. “Governance requires adaptation to shifting circumstances. It often requires finding common ground with Americans who have a different vision than your own.”
It’s impossible to read Lugar’s speech without becoming teary-eyed at the end of an era in Indiana politics. Thankfully, Lugar promised to stay active in the things that matter most: eliminating weapons of mass destruction and developing more efficient ways to feed the world.
Lugar will join the faculty of the University of Indianapolis, where he will help develop a Washington, D.C., internship program to immerse the next generation of leaders in the art of governance. Ask any of the thousands of interns who have passed through Lugar’s Washington and Indiana offices about their boss. Lugar is always one step ahead, always thinking about the future.